((Trigger warnings: Canon appropriate violence, injuries, descriptions of blood and traumatic injury. Last minute rescues all around. 8) ))
SHIELD would be on site in fourteen minutes. Thor was eleven minutes out. Iron Man was eight minutes away. They updated him, constantly, voices in his ear, cries from a distance.
Steve knew he wasn’t going to last long enough for any of them to reach him.
He could hear the buzz of his communicator in his ear, words that no longer meant anything. He could hear them yelling to him, orders and pleas and questions, and none of them, none of it, changed the reality. He wasn’t going to last long enough for any of his team to get here.
He was going to die here. Alone.
The pavement was wet beneath his cheek, his own blood spreading beneath him, and he was having trouble breathing. Pain made his vision white out as he fought to get to his feet, only to have a solid kick slam into his jaw, knocking him back.
The street was empty, that was one saving grace. His only saving grace. He’d held Sabertooth off, long enough. On his own, without backup, hand to hand and head on, he’d held his ground through this battle, until the last of the civilians had fled. Until the nearby cars and school bus had emptied, the middle school students fleeing in screaming packs. They’d all gotten away, even if he’d lost his shield in the act of buying them the room to run. He could hear the sirens in the distance, but there was destruction in all directions.
And Sabertooth was too strong for any of the human forces that might make it here. There was no one coming. There was no one left.
Steve Rogers listened to the crackle of voices in his ear, and fought his way to his knees, almost to his feet, before he was sent toppling again.
“Why don’t you just stay down?” Sabertooth snarled, padding in loose, easy circles around Steve. “Wouldn’t that be easier? You’re gonna end up there, anyway.”
Steve lashed out with one hand and Sabertooth stomped down on his outstretched arm, slamming it down, and Steve would’ve screamed if he’d had the breath. Another kick, and he was face down on the ground, struggling to breath, fighting to remain conscious.
“Man, you are a whole new kinda dumb.”
Sabertooth put a foot on the side of his head, bearing down, pressing down. Steve gritted his teeth against a scream as the uneven pavement dug into his skin. “One less costumed pretender in this world,” Sabertooth snarled, leaning over. He held up one hand, fingers spread wide, the vicious arc of his fingers like a blade. “Say good-bye.” His arm went up and Steve was still struggling, still fighting, but it wasn’t enough, it wasn’t going to be enough.
Sabertooth was laughing, almost giggling, as the weight was lifted. Steve waited, braced, for the final blow.
“GET AWAY FROM HIM!”
For an instant, he didn’t know what had happened, only that the weight was gone, only that Sabertooth had been hit, not hard, but hard enough that he’d retreated a step or two, retreated and braced himself, turning to face this new threat. And just like that, Steve was free, free to try again. Steve blinked hard, trying to understand why. The form that moved between him and Sabertooth was small, slim, and for an instant, Steve didn’t want to comprehend why.
She was a child.
Twelve, maybe a bit more, but a child, a little girl, and she was standing there, between Steve and the seething monster that was gathering himself. In her hands was a backpack, a red backpack, a heavy one, judging by the way that it hung from her hands. But she gripped it, her feet braced apart, and as Steve watched, she gathered herself and swung it again, slamming the weight of it into Sabretooth’s head.
He staggered backwards, more out of shock than anything else. Snarling, he slashed out with a massive clawed hand. She ducked, stumbling backwards, staying out of reach, and swung again. This time, he was ready, a vicious swipe of his arm, and the backpack shredded, books crashing to the ground.
“Are you fuckin’ kidding me?” he said. “What do you think you’re doing, kid?” He reached down and picked up one of the books, a school book, a text. “You think you’re a hero?” He flung the book away, with enough force to send it crashing through the front window of a nearby store. It shattered, raining glass to the pavement.
“Get away from him.” She took a step back, and that was it, then she braced her feet, wide and steady, her arms held out to the sides. Her voice was shaking, but she was steady. “Get away from him.”
“No,” Steve said, and he could get up now, he would get up now, he would not- There was a child protecting him, a little girl in jeans and a pink sweatshirt and a headscarf the color of the sky in early spring, there was a little girl standing in front of him.
With her arms outstretched, as if she could stop anything at all.
Sabertooth took a darting step forward, and the girl flinched, her whole body twitching backwards, but she held her ground. She held, a sob escaping her clenched jaw. “I won’t let you kill him,” she said.
“Won’t LET me?” He was laughing. Loud and harsh and sharp, he was laughing at her. Another little feint, another slash of his hand, because he was playing with her. He was playing with her like a house cat played with a baby mouse, one too confused and ignorant to run. One that didn’t know it was supposed to run.
Steve was off the pavement, his head hanging down as he forced his body up, his shoulders shaking with the effort. There was blood everywhere, in his mouth, in his eyes, dripping down to puddle on the pavement, but he could move, he would move, he could do this now. “Run,” he whispered, and her head snapped in his direction. He had only a moment, an instant to see her big brown eyes, eyes full of fear and determination, and then she was looking at Sabertooth again.
“No,” she whispered back. Sabertooth flicked a hand at her head, and she ducked, falling back a single step, until she was almost on top of Steve. He could hear her breathing now, raw and uneven and rattling in her. But no matter how hard she was shaking, she still stood there. Arms out and head up.
Sabertooth lashed out, and this time, he caught her by the front of her sweatshirt, lifting her off her feet and holding her in front of him, staring down at her, his face almost touching hers. “Run, little bird,” he snarled, his teeth bared, and she let out a sob.
With a disdainful flick of his wrist, he tossed her aside. She crashed to the ground, the impact startling a scream out of her. It was over almost before it began, small and choked off as she huddled into herself.
Steve scrambled at the ground, but one arm wouldn’t work, wouldn’t work at all, he couldn’t move, couldn’t get up, and he choked out, “Run.” It should’ve been a scream, and it wasn’t, it was a whisper, a sob, a croak, but somehow, she heard him.
She looked down at him, and she was crying, he could see the tracks of the tears on her face. Her feet scraped against the pavement, and he wanted to cry, too. “Run,” he said again, ordered, pleaded, begged.
He was almost up, one arm useless, dragging on the ground, the other contributing to the puddle of blood beneath him, but he was pushing himself up, inch by inch, he could do it, he could do this one last thing. “Run!” he screamed at her, and it was soundless.
She closed her eyes, and moved.
He didn’t understand, didn’t know what she was doing, until she folded herself over him, bracing her thin body over his head and his shoulders, folding herself around him. Pushing him down, pushing him flat again. Steve didn’t understand, couldn’t even try to understand.
Until she wrapped her arms around his head and folded herself close.
And she was sobbing, he could hear it, feel it, thin and sustained. She was shaking with it, with the force of it, but her arms clung to him, held tight, steady, her fingers finding grips on his costume. She put herself above him, around him, offering him the only protection she could.
Making herself a human shield.
No, please no. He fought, and there was no fight left in him, but there was a child, there was this little girl, there was one last person, one last person he could save. One last person he could keep alive, if he fell here, if today was his day, his last day, he would die, but he would die alone. He could die alone, without the blood of this child mingling with his.
“Run,” he said, and he knew she wouldn’t, he could feel her nails digging into his shoulders. “Please, please, run, please-”
Her breathing was ragged against his ear. “Thank you,” she whispered, and that was all he heard.
He opened his eyes.
Tony swam into view above him, his face worried, his brows drawn up tight. As Steve blinked, struggling to focus, his face relaxed. “Hey, Cap,” he said, and he was smiling now. “No, no, stay still, you-” He gave up on talking, just pushed down hard on Steve’s shoulders. “Bruce?”
Bruce’s head appeared over his shoulder. “Cap? Okay, you can’t get up, you need to-”
Steve choked on the word, and tried again, his throat not cooperating. “Girl?”
“She’s fine,” Tony said, immediately. “It’s fine, Steve. She’s here, she’s fine.”
Steve stared at him, not understanding, not believing, and Tony grinned at him. “Fierce little thing that hit a guy about six times her side in the face with a backpack full of art reference books? She is fine. She distracted him long enough for Bruce to get there.”
“The other guy does not, it would appear, like people who make little girls cry,” Bruce said, with a faint smile. He poured a cup of water and brought the straw to Steve’s lips. “Drink a little. You’re healing, but you lost a lot of blood.”
“Yeah, let’s not do that again,” Tony said. He looked exhausted, deep lines carved in his face. Steve reached out, caught his hand and squeezed. Tony clung to it. “Seriously, no being a dman hero, if it means you’re going to die.”
Steve’s lips twitched, and he let Bruce pull the cup away. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“That’s what you said about storming Hydra bases solo, too, isn’t it? Your good ideas are lousy, Rogers.”
Steve struggled to sit up. “The girl?” he asked, wanting reassurance. Wanting something more concrete than that.
“She’s outside. With her parents and Coulson. She wanted to see that you were okay, before we let you go,” Bruce said. “Want me to go see if they’ll let her come in?”
Steve nodded, his fingers still tight in Tony’s. “Please?”
Tony squeezed his hand as Bruce headed for the door. “Her name,” he said, “is Aisha. That was her bus, the one you kept Sabertooth from using as a missile. She doubled back. She came back. Said that you saved them. That you saved her best friend, and her little sister.” Tony was smiling. “She said you were a hero.”
Steve squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to think about the sound of her breathing, the way she’d cried, even as she’d held on. “She’d know.”
The door opened, and he looked over. She was still crying, but she was grinning as she crept in, Coulson and two people he didn’t know right behind her. “Hi,” he said, smiling at her.